MAD MAX (1979) U.S. release (1980)


Boston Globe - July 4, 1980

Author: Bruce McCabe Globe Staff

Directed by George Miller, co-written by Miller and James McCausland. Starring Mel Gibson. At the Beacon Hill and suburban theaters and drive-ins. Rated R.

When I was in Cannes last year, the chic film to see was this futuristically styled, gothic Australian motorcycle opera which also functions as an homage to the American B picture and its graphic concerns.

Ironically, the film is being distributed as an exploitation picture by the studio, American International, which has kept the B picture alive as a feature film even as television has appropriated the form.

The film is a compendium of references to the American films which have treated the outlaw of the modern Industrial Age, an outlaw who functions within the law (wearing the policeman's badge) as well as without. You can see references in "Mad Max" to everything from "The Wild One" and "A Clockwork Orange" to "Easy Rider," "Death Wish" and "In Cold Blood," not to mention a host of American International Pictures' motorcycle movies that sucked the life from the originals and left them as empty husks.

The references are not obvious enough, however, to make "Mad Max" pretentious. It has been skillfully crafted to appeal to both the drive-in crowd and the cineaste. There is enough violence and retribution to satisfy the most pseudo-pathological sensibility. Simultaneously, there is enough restraint and taste to keep the film from sliding into the mire that so often covers the genre. There are also psychological and political overtones rarely dramatized in the conventional genre. Director George Miller suggests that the violence of the motorcycle outlaw and the lawman who pursues him is rooted in a repressed homosexuality that manifests itself in strange forms. What redeems the suggestion is Miller's irrepressible humor. He squeezes the ritual of the genre for all it's worth and then some with a sort of grinning-death's-head japery.

The scenario involves a war to the death between a sleek, bullet-headed, futuristic highway patrolman named Max (Mel Gibson) and a decadent motorcycle gang. The war begins when a member of the gang, a psychopath called The Night Rider, burns to death in a car crash concluding a wild police chase. The gang, led by another psychopathic personality called The Toe-Cutter, vows vengeance. Max's partner is burned to a crisp in a fiery crash precipitated by the gang. The piece de resistance, however, is the gang's pursuit of Max's wife and infant son. When they are both run down on the highway, Max snaps and methodically sets about exterminating the vermin that has made his life such a nightmare.

As directed by Miller, the film makes the genre's conventions almost congenial. Cars are always breaking down at the most inopportune times (the motorcycles don't). Max's wife and son persist in leaving him at the most hazardous moments. At one point they have to be rescued from the gang's clutches by a crippled old woman brandishing a rifle. The ideas aren't original but they're redeemed by Miller's consistently deft manipulation of them. He operates with surgical proficiency.

If punk is a sensibility as well as an adjective, "Mad Max" is a punk movie. Its Australian setting enhances it, authenticating its futuristic aura. The landscape is a bleak desert sliced by a highway under an impassive sky. Death and destruction are cleaned up quickly and effectively. It's hard to get involved with these accidents because the people who have them are as flat and colorless as their surroundings. These people almost need speed and violence to remind them they're alive. They're almost dead anyway.

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